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Friday, March 28, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI's 2008 Chrism Mass Homily

Thanks to Fr. Blake for finding this and Sandro Magister for translating.

Dear brothers and sisters, each year the Chrism Mass exhorts us to return to that "yes" to the call of God which we pronounced on the day of our priestly ordination. "Adsum – here I am!", we said like Isaiah, when he heard the voice of God, who asked him: "Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?" "Here I am, send me!", Isaiah replied (Isaiah 6:8). Then the Lord himself, through the hands of the bishop, laid his hands upon us and we gave ourselves to his mission. Since then, we have traveled down various roads in following his call. Can we always claim what Paul, after years of a service of the Gospel that was often laborious and marked by sufferings of all kinds, wrote to the Corinthians: "Therefore, since we have this ministry through the mercy shown us, we are not discouraged" (2 Cor. 4:1)? "We are not discouraged." Let us pray today that our zeal may always be rekindled, so that it is constantly fed by the living flame of the Gospel.

At the same time, Holy Thursday is for us an opportunity to ask ourselves again: To what did we say "yes"? What is this "being a priest of Jesus Christ"? Canon II of our missal, which was probably composed in Rome before the end of the second century, describes the essence of the priestly ministry with the words that, in the book of Deuteronomy (18:5,7), described the essence of the Old Testament priesthood: astare coram te et tibi ministrare. Two functions, therefore, define the essence of the ministerial priesthood: in the first place, "standing before the Lord." In the book of Deuteronomy, this should be interpreted in the context of the previous dispensation, according to which the priests did not receive any portion of the Holy Land – they lived by God, and for God. They did not attend to the usual work necessary for sustaining daily life. Their profession was "to stand before the Lord" – looking to Him, living for Him. Thus, all told, the word indicated a life lived in the presence of God, and thus also a ministry in representation of others. Just as the others cultivated the land, from which the priest also lived, so he kept the world open to God, he had to live with his gaze turned to Him. If these words are now found in the Canon of the Mass immediately after the consecration of the gifts, after the entry of the Lord among the assembly gathered in prayer, then they indicate for us the standing before the Lord who is present; it indicates, that is, the Eucharist as the center of the priestly life. But even here its impact goes further. In the hymn of the liturgy of the hours that, during Lent, introduces the office of readings – the office that the monks used to pray during the hour of the nocturnal vigil before God, and for the sake of men – one of the tasks of Lent is described in the imperative: arctius perstemus in custodia – let us be watchful with greater intensity. In the tradition of Syriac monasticism, the monks were described as "those who stand on their feet"; standing on one's feet was an expression of vigilance. What was here considered as the task of the monks, we can reasonably view as being also an expression of the priestly mission, and as a correct interpretation of the words of Deuteronomy: the priest must be one who watches. He must stand guard before the relentless powers of evil. He must keep the world awake to God. He must be one who stands on his feet: upright in the face of the currents of the time. Upright in the truth. Upright in his commitment to goodness. Standing before the Lord must always be, in its inmost depths, also a lifting up of men to the Lord, who, in turn, lifts all of us up to the Father. And it must be a lifting up of Him, of Christ, of his word, of his truth, of his love. The priest must be upright, unwavering and ready even to suffer outrage for the sake of the Lord, as shown in the Acts of the Apostles: they "[rejoiced] that they had been found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name" (5:41).

Let's continue now to the second expression, which Canon II takes from the Old Testament – "to stand in your presence and serve you." The priest must be an upright, vigilant person, a person who stands straight. Then, to all of this, service is added. In the text of the Old Testament, this word has an essentially ritual meaning: the priest was responsible for all of the acts of worship stipulated by the Law. But this acting according to ritual was then classified as service, as a task of service, and this explains in what spirit these activities had to be carried out. With the inclusion of the expression "to serve" in the Canon, this liturgical meaning of the term is in a certain way adopted – in keeping with the newness of Christian worship. What the priest does at that moment, and in the celebration of the Eucharist, is to serve, and to carry out a service of God and a service of men. The worship that Christ rendered to the Father was that of giving of himself to the end, for the sake of men. The priest must insert himself into this worship, into this service. Thus the expression "to serve" involves many dimensions. Certainly first among these is the proper celebration of the Liturgy and of the Sacraments in general, carried out with interior participation. We must learn to understand more and more the sacred liturgy in all of its essence, to develop a lively familiarity with it, so that it becomes the soul of our daily life. It is then that we celebrate properly, it is then that there emerges on its own account the ars celebrandi, the art of celebrating. There must be nothing artificial in this art. If the Liturgy is a central task of the priest, this also means that priority must be given to learning continually anew and more profoundly how to pray, in the school of Christ and of the saints of all ages. Because the Christian Liturgy, by its nature, is also always a proclamation, we must be persons who are familiar with the Word of God, who love it and live it: only then will we be able to explain it in an adequate way. "To serve the Lord" – priestly service also means learning to know the Lord in his word, and to make Him known to all those He entrusts to us.

Two other aspects, finally, are part of service. No one is as close to his master as the servant, who has access to the most private dimension of his life. In this sense, "serving" means closeness, it requires familiarity. This familiarity also brings a danger: that our constant contact with the sacred might make it become routine for us. Thus reverential fear is extinguished. Under the influence of all of our habits, we no longer perceive the great, new, surprising fact, the He himself is present, that He speaks to us, He gives himself to us. We must fight without rest against this habituation to the extraordinary reality, against the indifference of the heart, recognizing always anew our insufficiency and the grace that is present in the fact that he delivers himself into our hands in this way. Serving means closeness, but above all it means obedience. The servant is under orders: "Not my will, but yours be done" (Luke 22:42). With these words on the Mount of Olives, Jesus resolved the decisive battle against sin, against the rebellion of the fallen heart. Adam's sin consisted precisely in the fact that he wanted to do his own will, and not that of God. The temptation of humanity is always that of being totally autonomous, of following only its own will and of maintaining that only in this way will we be free; that it is only through such limitless freedom that man can be fully himself. But in this very way, we pit ourselves against the truth. Because the truth is that we must share our freedom with others, and can be free only in communion with them. This shared freedom can be true freedom only if through this we enter into what constitutes the measure of freedom, if we enter into the will of God. This fundamental obedience that is part of the human being, a being that is not solely of and for itself, becomes even more concrete in the priest: we do not proclaim ourselves, but rather Him and his Word, which we could not have imagined on our own. We proclaim the word of Christ correctly only in the communion of his Body. Our obedience is believing together with the Church, thinking and speaking together with the Church, serving together with it. This always involves what Jesus predicted to Peter: 'someone else will . . . lead you where you do not want to go'. This being led where we do not want to go is an essential dimension of our service, and it is precisely this that makes us free. By being led in this way, which can be contrary to our own ideas and plans, we experience something new – the riches of the love of God.

"To stand before Him and serve Him": Jesus Christ, as the true High Priest of the world, has conferred upon these words a profundity that was unimaginable before. He, who as Son was and is Lord, wanted to become that servant of God whom the vision of the book of the prophet Isaiah had foreseen. He wanted to be the servant of all. He depicted the entirety of his high priesthood in the gesture of the washing of the feet. With the gesture of love until the very end, He washes our dirty feet, with the humility of his service He purifies us from the sickness of our arrogance. Thus he makes us capable of becoming God's companions. He descended, and the true ascension of man is now realized in our ascending with Him and to Him. His elevation is the Cross. This is the most profound descent, and, as love pushed to the very limit, it is at the same time the culmination of the ascent, the "elevation" of man. "To stand before Him and serve Him" – this now means entering into his call as servant of God. The Eucharist as the presence of the descent and ascent of Christ thus refers, beyond itself, to the many ways of the service of love of neighbor. Let us ask the Lord, on this day, for the gift of being able to say once more in this sense our "yes" to his call: "Here I am. Send me, Lord" (cf. Isaiah 6:8). Amen.

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